Help for Dealing With a High-Conflict Custody Dispute

How to respond when your ex provokes you

Time for a family meeting
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When you’re dealing with a high-conflict custody dispute, it’s important to remain level-headed and stand your ground. Here are some tips for coping when your ex repeatedly tries to antagonize you over your custody arrangement:

  • Practice self-awareness. You can’t change how the other person behaves, but you can change the way you respond or contribute to the situation. Especially if you’re dealing with an extremely high-conflict personality who’s manipulative or accustomed to getting his or her own way, focusing on what you know to be true about yourself and the situation will help you stay grounded.
  • Write it all down. Start keeping a journal where you can document not only your interactions with your ex, but also your own feelings. In particular, you’ll want to look for patterns that can help you create routines for dealing with the situation. And remember, your goal isn’t to change your ex’s behavior -- because you don’t have any control over that. What you want to do—and can do—is identify small changes that will make the situation easier for your children and yourself.
  • Surround yourself with positive influences. Think about who you listen to most. Is it your best friend? A family member? Make an intentional effort to surround yourself with positive people who will help you be more assertive without unnecessarily making you more upset or adding drama.
  • Set boundaries with your ex. Put limits on when you’ll answer the phone, text, and meet to discuss the situation. For example, let your ex know that you’re available until 8 p.m. to talk on the phone or text, but that your phone will be set to silent after that. And when you need to discuss custody and other issues in person, make a point of meeting in a public place where you feel comfortable.
  • Compromise when appropriate. You don’t want to become a doormat or for one voluntary compromise to suggest that your ex can have his or her way all the time. However, it can be extremely effective to proactively offer up a compromise that is important to your ex but doesn’t cost you more than you’re willing to give up. When possible, try to be as flexible with you ex as you’d like him or her to be with you.
  • Work with a lawyer you trust. Don’t attempt to navigate a bitter custody battle on your own. Hire an attorney who knows the child custody laws in your state and has experience practicing family law. If money is an issue, contact your state Bar Association for referrals to pro-bono legal services and legal clinics in your area.
  • Develop a written parenting plan. Put your agreements down on paper so that you have something to refer to when either of you asks for changes or claims that the custody arrangement isn’t being followed. Some states require a parenting plan, but even if your state doesn’t, a clearly written parenting plan will make it more difficult for your ex to manipulate the situation or claim that you’re not following the plan you both agreed to. Be sure to include details like transportation, when each visit will start and end, and how you plan to handle school holidays, as well.

Most parents will see improvement with the steps outlined above. However, if you’re experiencing a particularly high-conflict custody dispute with an individual who’s become aggressive or unstable, it may be safer to back off. The following recommendations are for situations where safety may be compromised by continuing to use rational communication methods:

  • Seek counseling. Particularly if you’re trying to co-parent with a narcissist personality, you should consider speaking with a professional. This will give you a safe place to unload all that you’re dealing with while also providing strategies for coping and remaining differentiated from any drama your ex is attempting to stir up.
  • Minimize contact. If your ex frequently lashes out at you, take steps to minimize contact with him or her. While I don’t recommend zero contact, unless safety is an issue, it can helpful to limit contact to conversations that are absolutely necessary.
  • Stay on topic. Avoid venturing off into topics that could worsen the conflict between you. For example, don’t bring up old arguments that aren’t likely be resolved and don’t allow yourself to react when your ex tries to stir up trouble with accusations or inflammatory words.
  • Consider a restraining order. This is only recommended in situations where your safety or your children’s safety is at risk. Never exaggerate circumstances in an effort to secure a restraining order, as this will only work against you. To get a restraining order, contact your local police station or—in an emergency—call 911.

Finally, remember that the purpose of every communication with your ex is to facilitate his or her ongoing relationship with your children—a relationship that your kids have a right to experience. To the extent that you can, try to put your differences behind you and work toward developing a more healthy co-parenting relationship. And remember, your co-parenting relationship is still developing; with help, it won't always be as difficult as it is today.